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Dental student adapts to prosthetic arm

Dental student Amar Patel leaned over a model of a head sporting a full set of artificial teeth. With his two tanned hands, he operated a drill and held a small round mirror in place.

A second glance revealed that his left arm, slightly shorter than the right, emerged hairless from his blue scrubs and is a lifelike 7-pound, high-tech prosthetic limb.

As the only University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio dental student missing an arm, Patel, 24, holds a unique status among his classmates — tackling an already difficult course of study with a challenging disadvantage.

He lost his arm in an accident last May, just after taking his second-year final exams. Patel, who grew up in the Dallas suburbs, was heading home from San Antonio with his brother sleeping in the passenger seat. About 20 miles outside Temple on Interstate 35, the late nights of studying and the miles of highway monotony caught up with him. He fell asleep at the wheel, awoke after hitting the rumble strip and overcompensated. The car flipped on its side as Patel propped himself against the driver's side window.

“When the glass shattered, it was just asphalt and I was still sliding along, so the asphalt just tore it off,” Patel said of his left arm, now missing above the elbow.

An off-duty police officer saw the wreck, stopped and made a tourniquet for his wound. His brother was unharmed and, as paramedics prepared to take Patel to Scott & White Hospital, his brother spotted the arm lying 20 feet away in the grass.

“He was like, 'What about the arm?' So they grabbed the arm and put it in the icebox,” Patel said.

Doctors reattached it but deemed it not viable about a week later. Patel tells the “semi-gruesome” story with the same gentle demeanor with which he speaks about learning to retie his shoes or open a bottle with the aid of his new prosthesis.

That attitude could be his key to success, assistant dentistry professor Norma Olvera said. She said faculty members were saddened to learn of the accident, especially after Patel had “spent two years trying to develop these hand skills.”

Patel, who luckily is right-handed, said that from the start he thought he could still finish dental school, though he may have been naïve about the difficulties. He's spent the past six months in Dallas, rehabilitating before returning to school in January.

Olvera knows the toughest work for Patel is still ahead.

“Will that prosthetic hand do exactly what his normal arm will do? Obviously, the answer is no,” she said. “But he will make the most of it.”

His specially designed $140,000 limb, crafted by a Dallas-based prosthetic specialist with state-of-the-art German components, loops around his back and contains an air bladder to add stabilizing pressure. Two electrical nodes, one on his bicep and one on his tricep, allow Patel to move the hand by contracting his muscles.

Patel is relearning skills he acquired in his second year before moving on to a clinical setting — and real patients.

Dentists typically use their nondominant hand for support, for opening the cheek to access rear teeth and to hold a mouth mirror. Using the prosthetic hand to hold a mirror, for instance, makes for slower work if he needs to adjust the angle. Sometimes he must use his shoulder more. Sometimes he has to open and close the hand to hold it in a new position.

“It's a little more nuisance, but it does get the job done,” Patel said. “I'm pretty patient.”

He will have to meet the same standards as any other dentist — and tell patients up front about his limb. But he thinks the natural look of his prosthesis will make them comfortable.

“When I was thinking of a prosthetic arm, I was thinking more of the claw,” he said. “I didn't know how advanced it had become. With this, when I'm wearing a gown and wearing gloves, no one sees it.”

But, he said, there is one thing he had wanted to learn that seems out of reach for now — driving stick shift.

“I guess that's not happening now unless I get the 'I, Robot' hand one day,” he joked.



Source: mysanantonio



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